Daphniphyllum macropodum – False Daphne
Now here’s one to stump the most astute southern plantphile. Daphniphyllum provides the bold textural foliage of Rhododendron unencumbered by the distraction of flowers. While some plant enthusiasts think this may be the ultimate green blob in the landscape, others (like myself) tend to think this is a class specimen only in the right spot. Daphniphyllum is probably destined to be appreciated only by the most fringe elements of the landscape world. Trying to find the English common name was no easy chore. Daphniphyllum comes from the Greek and refers to “Daphne” and “leaf.” The common name in Japanese is Yuzuri-ha. However, as one of my friends wrote recently, those who insist on a catchy common name are a little nonplussed when it’s in Japanese. According to Satoshi Yamagushi in Matsuyama, Japan, Yuzuriha means that the “old leaf is replaced by a new leaf in the succeeding season.” That is, to “take over” or “take turn,” with the old leaf dropping after the new leaf emerges, thus no interruption of the foliage. Satoshi also noted that the new leaves give thanks to the old leaves for their kind nourishment during the winter. In Japan, the plant is used as an “ornament for the new year to celebrate the good relationship of old and new generations.” In spite of this, one of my most irreverent friends in the business of naming plants still suggested “green meatball” or “redneck rhododendron” as the best common name for the South. That seemed a bit too much. So we’re stuck without an English common name. We calmly propose the name “false daphne” as a good choice. If the world becomes noisy with protest, we would be glad to accept another name - any other name - without a court fight.
Almost unknown in the trade, Daphniphyllum macropodum is a member of the Daphniphyllaceae, one of 15 species of evergreen shrubs or trees native to China, Japan and Korea. The species is hardy in U.S. Zones 7 – 8, perhaps into 6 in sheltered locations. It is considered an evergreen medium to large shrub to 20’ tall and wide Daphniphyllum himalense var. macropodum HC97062 sporting glossy rhododendron-like foliage. Leaves are alternate, simple, petiolate, oblong, glossy above and glabrous beneath, often with long red petioles and midribs. Plants are dioecious and flowers/fruit are inconspicuous. To get fruit and viable seeds it is important to have both sexes in close proximity.
In Japan, it is considered a woodland, stream-side species to 40’, with seed dispersal primarily by birds. Like Daphne, the leaves are crowded and often whorled at the branch tips. The petiole is one to two inches long and in some forms blushes red into the leaf midrib and out. There is significant variability in the genus and there are “blue” forms derived from Taiwan stock. Daphniphyllum is dioecious; that is, the male flowers are on one plant and female flowers on another. Single plants fail to fruit. For good set, planting five or more individuals in close proximity is a good idea. We have run several seed sources and find the seed germinates readily after the fruit, a single-seeded drupe, has been cleaned. Cutting propagation has been another matter – we aren’t at zero success but we’re close to it. The variability in leaf shape, petiole-midrib color, and plant structure is enough to justify further propagation trials. Plant growth in the first few years is slow, but once established, the species is quite durable. Daphniphyllum requires a part-shade to shady location. While the plant grows best in neutral to mildly acid soils, it is reported to be tolerant of higher pH soils. We recommend a well-drained root zone amended with composted pine bark. I have seen and actually touched the rare variegated forms; they are a bit pricey with a reputation for being finicky (prone to suicide). There’s a closely related cousin, Daphniphyllum humile, a smaller version. There are nomenclature issues. Dirr described a specimen in the University of Georgia’s Botanical Garden filling out in the 1990’s as a “wonderful haystack-shaped specimen,” one that would serve nicely as a textural substitute for largeleaved Rhododendrons in Zones 7 and 8. Whatever the common name, this plant remains an oddity in the landscape world of the South. For the plant collector or the landscaper looking for a large woodland evergreen shrub with bold textural appeal, this species may be just the ticket.
Dr. David Creech, Director of SFA Gardens